“You know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe; I mean, shipwrecked among eight million people. And then, one day, I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.” –Jack Lemmon, The Apartment
Some actors are brilliant in comedies alone. Other actors are definitively dramatic. And then there’s Jack Lemmon.
True to comedic form, John Uhler Lemmon II, later known as Jack Lemmon, was born in an elevator at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. As the story goes, the elevator was going down. In the chaos of the moment, Lemmon’s mother told her husband, “That’s it! Never again!” Born on February 8, 1925, Lemmon was an only child.
Lemmon’s parents were Mildred Burgess LaRue, and John Uhler Lemmon, Jr., who worked as an executive in a bakery company—the Donut Corporation of America. Lemmon knew he wanted to be an actor since he was eight years old, specifically aiming to work on the stage.
Prior to his epiphany regarding the pursuit of a potential career in acting, Lemmon was often teased on the playground, since his middle name was Uhler. This prompted other children to shout, “Jack, U Lemmon!” On the day he was born, Lemmon had a case of jaundice, causing the nurse to say, “What a yellow Lemmon.” However, participating in a school play gave Lemmon a refreshing feeling of acceptance from his peers, to the point of them asking him to tell them more stories for their amusement. As a result, Lemmon would make up tall tales between classes and his fellow students would gather around his desk to hear his stories. By the time he reached his teens, he knew that he loved to entertain an audience and could do so with ease.
Theatrical and film roles did not occur right away for young Lemmon. He was a sickly boy who required thirteen operations before he even turned thirteen. Some credit those experiences as the cause of his unusual posture in his films. Later, he attended Harvard University, where his grades were modest in every subject, save for drama.
After attending Harvard and being an active member of its many drama clubs, Lemmon joined the Navy, receiving V-12 training and serving as an ensign. Upon being discharged, he took up acting professionally, working on radio, television, and Broadway.
Before he left for New York to try and find an agent and begin auditioning for roles, Lemmon borrowed a few hundred dollars from his father, who was fully supportive of his endeavors.
According to an interview by Ability Magazine, the exchange went something like this:
“You really want to give this a shot, huh?”
To which Jack replied, “Yeah, I’ve got to find out. Otherwise, I’ll never really know whether I could have done it or not.”
“You’ve done similar stuff, and you’ve done enough to know that you love it?”
“I love it.”
“Great. Because the day I don’t find romance in a loaf of bread, I’m going to quit.”
At this point, Lemmon’s love for music propelled him forward. Since he was a child, Lemmon loved to play the piano, learning how to play it on his own. In addition, he could also play the harmonica, guitar, organ, and double bass. Lemmon’s first job in New York was playing piano at a club managed by another Harvard graduate.
In a 1993 interview, Jack recounted:
“I used to play at the Old Knick Music Hall on Second Avenue in New York, way back in the ‘40s when I first started. Some weeks, we didn’t get paid, because there wouldn’t be enough people in there to give us anything. Sometimes you’d maybe get five bucks. We’d split whatever was left on Saturday night. But you got a piece of chicken and French fries every night. You got a meal.
Lemmon’s first break was a role in a radio soap opera, entitled The Brighter Day. After a few television roles, Lemmon starred in a Broadway revival of Room Service, but the show only ran for two weeks; however, it did land him a trip to Hollywood. A Columbia scout thought that he would be a good fit for It Should Happen to You (1954), opposite Judy Holliday. The studio boss at the time, Harry Cohn, agreed. Lemmon’s comedic portrayal of a photographer received a great deal of positive criticism, which led to a host of many memorable film roles.
Lemmon was not only quick to admit that acting brought him a great deal of joy, but also that his own life seemed to be a series of faux pas. However, behind the scenes, Lemmon’s real love was for music. It acted as his perfect escape from the pressures of stardom. Between takes, Lemmon indulged in playing piano, even if the film did not call for music. The studio staff would sometimes provide a piano for him, hoping it would help to inspire a strong performance.
On occasion, this knack for music can be glimpsed in some of his films. In It Should Happen to You, Lemmon and Holliday sing part of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Let’s Fall in Love” with Lemmon at the piano. In another instance, Lemmon and Betty Grable sing “I’ve Got a Crush on You” in Three for the Show (1955).
Lemmon recorded an album while filming Some Like It Hot (1959). Twelve jazz tracks were created for Lemmon and another twelve were added. Lemmon played the piano and recorded his own renditions of some of the songs Marilyn Monroe sang in the film. The album was released in 1959 as Some Like It Hot/A Twist of Lemmon.
In an interview, Jack recalled: “‘I play the piano every day. I could sit and play for an hour, and Felicia [his wife] would come in and say, ‘How long are we going to hold dinner?’ And I’d say, ‘Well I’ve been here five minutes.’ And she’ll say, ‘Five minutes? It’s been an hour and a half.’”
Lemmon also appeared in hit films such as The Apartment (1960) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962). He would win Oscars for Mister Roberts (1956) and Save the Tiger (1974). He also worked with Walter Matthau in several films, including The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Odd Couple (1968), The Front Page (1974), and more. He continued to act for decades to come, including appearances in Grumpy Old Men (1993), Grumpier Old Men (1995), and Tuesdays with Morrie (1999).
Lemmon passed away on June 27, 2001, from bladder cancer at age 76. He was buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
Although Lemmon had to leave his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts to begin to further his career, he remembered his home and childhood with an almost Norman Rockwell-esque nostalgia. Lemmon vividly recalled the addresses of his early years at Bartlett Terrace, his home in the 1940s at 3 Ivanhoe Street, and a residence on Waverly Street. He happily remembered being able to jump on his bike and go just about anywhere he wanted. He lived very close to Ward Elementary School, the school he attended as a young boy, which was just a ten-minute walk through a couple of fields.
The Rivers School is a private school that was located in Brookline at the time but is now in Weston.
Lemmon also attended high school at Phillips Andover Academy, a boarding school, before enrolling at Harvard. Phillips Andover Academy is located at 180 Main St., Andover, Massachusetts.
Harvard University remains a renowned university and is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While some interviews with Lemmon state that the Newton-Wellesley Hospital placed a plaque next to the elevator in which Lemmon was born, unfortunately, no such plaque exists today. The hospital is located at 2014 Washington St., Newton, Massachusetts.
Lemmon is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in motion pictures at 6357 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California.
Lemmon’s prints are located in the forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California.
Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery is located at 1218 Glendon Ave., Los Angeles, California.
Looking back at Jack’s own life, it almost reads like a culmination of the many characters he portrayed. His drive, ambition, humble nature, and beginnings in a small town make him incredibly human and relatable. And yet, there is a touch of comedy sprinkled throughout his life. From being born in an elevator on his mother’s routine trip to a doctor’s appointment, to getting fresh paint on his suit at the Oscars, Jack positively dealt with just about as many mishaps as the next person, if not more so.
After all, nobody’s perfect.